Friday, February 27, 2015

Albany Ale: The Dark Side of Albany Ale

By “dark” I don’t mean porter or stout.

For the last five years, I’ve researched and celebrated Albany’s brewing history and heritage. I’m glad I did. I've come to realize that beer was a major part of Albany’s cultural and societal fabric. Without a doubt beer helped to shape what Albany was and what it would become. Albany owes a lot to beer, and that's a good thing.

But there is a downside to that. A rather terrible downside. A city that builds itself on a drug—and yes, alcohol is very much a drug—will eventually have to deal with the ill-effects of that drug. In beer’s case—alcoholism, abandonment, and orphanhood. It was during the post Revolutionary, period where we see the collision of pre-industrial colonial drinking habits in which, to some extent, beer benefited Albany’s population by providing a potable alternative to the city’s often contaminated water, as well as being a nutritional supplement; with the reality of industrialized, population-wide drunkenness.

By the 1820s, even before the meteoric rise of the city’s modern brewing industry and during the infancy of Albany Ale, alcoholism was rampant in the city. Albany’s gifted and award winning journalist and biographer Paul Grondahl covers this period of Albany’s history at the beginning of his book, Now is The Time, about the history of Parsons Child and Family Center. Parsons has operated in Albany for 186 years, and today it “is the largest multi-services agency in New York’s Capital Region dedicated families and their children. The agency provides counseling services, parenting education, child abuse/neglect prevention and treatment, family strengthening programs, early childhood family support, special education, youth development programs, and mental health services.” According to their website.

However, in 1828, a year before Orrisa Heely opened the Albany Orphan Asylum (later to become Parsons Child and Family Center), there was nothing but, literally, the poorhouse—a woefully under funded, government assisted poorhouse—and the meager alms collected by the Dutch Reformed Church.

Albany saw unprecedented growth in the 1820s, due largely to the completion of the Erie Canal, and although some in the city were thriving economically, others—many others—were not. Poverty was everywhere. Beer did not help. The combination of easily available alcohol and destitution gave rise to alcoholism, and with alcoholism came abandonment. Heeley’s own husband left her after the death of their infant child. Homeless and orphaned children roamed the streets in incredible numbers, competing with hogs for food and shelter. A law passed in 1820 required that any child found begging in the city to be sent to the poorhouse until ”some proper person shall be found to take such a child.” As you can imagine that “proper person” did not come around often. Grondhal wrote of the poorhouse in his book:
“…the city’s poorhouse, opened in the early 1820s, was almost immediately inadequate to meet Albany’s needs…Some widowed or deserted mothers and their children were taken in there, but it was not conducive to family life.”
He continues, later in the chapter, writing about the city’s indigent, it’s plentiful alcohol and the unfortunate result.
“Several of the poorhouse residents had entered its doors after serving time in Albany’s jail. The jail was built in 1810 to punish drunk and disorderly conduct and more sinister crimes.The city was awash in alcohol. Albany was also a center for brewing and produced 42,000 barrels of beer in 1829, of which 12,000 barrels were not exported and were consumed locally—equal to one-half barrel for every man, woman and child in the city. An estimated 415 tavern, shops, and market stalls sold liquor in Albany at that time. It was little wonder that the city was home to about 500 chronic drunkards and nearly 200 people died from complications related to alcohol abuse in 1830—one of the primary avenues to orphanhood for the children left behind in the wreckage of those who succumbed to the disease of alcoholism.”
That’s all past us now, right? Not quite

Sure, beer is cool, and beer is hip—especially in today’s climate, and with the growing popularity of craft beer—but we are not that far removed from the ills of 1829. Alcoholism is still major issue in our society even 186 years later.

Otherwise Parsons—or places like them—still wouldn’t need to be open.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Another Country Heard From or, In Wine There Is Truth

I don't usually re-post other writer's work verbatim, but today I'm going to buck tradition.

Carlo DeVito's recent post about craft beer's rather self-indulgent "pyrotechnics"—as he calls them—struck a chord with me. What he writes isn’t particularly revolutionary, and as far as beer folk go, it’s a rather beaten horse conversation. The “experiments” (again using his word) have been justified time and time again as a “what is made is what the market demands" and "experimentation makes for good beer". 

That might (or might not) be the case, but what makes Carlo’s point so interesting is that he doesn’t normally write about beer. Rather, he’s an accomplished publishing executive, and editor with an affinity for wine. In fact he owns the Hudson-Chatham Winery, in Columbia County, New York. But don’t get him wrong, Carlo likes beer—he sites Scotch Ale as a particular favorite. He enjoys the occasional glass of fermented grain, rather than his usual one of fermented grapes, every once in a while. But that’s about as far as it goes for him. However, at the same time, he can look at the craft beer industry through wine-industry colored glasses, and having published a good number of boozy books over his career, he comes with a unique perspective.

Now, beer folk may simply choose to write Mr. DeVito off as a novice, or a slightly ill-informed, under schooled beery dilettante—a moniker he chooses to call himself. But, perhaps, rather than showing him to the door with a polite wave, craft beer might do itself a favor by reading his post, and considering his opinion—and then maybe read it again.

Here you go:

What's Next For Local Beer? Pyrotechnics Versus Quality. 
Notes From a Beer Amateur

By Carlo DeVito

Scotch ale is a great beer. Malty and almost semi-sweet. Done right, it is one of my favorite beers. And tasting one recently brought me to a very weird question.

I am not a beer authority. I have been lucky enough in life to get hang out with some of the better ones. I published Michael Jackson years ago when I was at Running Press. And I was lucky enough to work with Tim Webb, Ben McFarland Stephen Beaumont, and Joshua M. Bernstein among many, as well as local beer authorities like Josh Christie, Chad Polenz, Julia Burke, and others.

That doesn't make me an makes me a dilettante.

Now, there are two things I want to say here. First, I have been a HUGE fan of the craft beer explosion. I have had immense fun watching what's been going on.

Secondly, I love seeing the inventive new products coming from the craft beer explosion. I love the experimentation and I love the collaboration. I think it is all very cool!

Thirdly, I am friends and acquaintances with a number of brewers, and I love talking to them about beer, and have even worked on a few collaboration beers myself.

That said, I am left wondering where we are with the craft beer revolution. Right now I see the evolution of a paradigm - the Pyrotechnics Versus Quality Beer.

Already there has begun a backlash of the over hopping of craft beer. The double and triple IPAs, the Black IPAs. It seems these days if it' not over hopped, it's not considered good. And I applauded the original trend. But of course, nothing in America succeeds like excess. I, like others, think the trend has gone too far. Brett too seemed to be the rage for sometime, though I seem to suddenly be hearing less and less about that.

I guess you can say that about almost every category. From Pumpkin stout, to chocolate stout, to gingerbread stout, etc.

But here's what I am wondering. I have skin in the local craft beverage business. And I am a fan. But here's what I ask as a drinker, and then some... Where does it all end? When do we just brew good beer instead of crazy beer? Is it all pyrotechnics, or is settling to be a quality maker not enough?

My favorite brewery, though I love trying beers from Mikkler and all the others, are places like Samuel Smith, Brooklyn Brewery, and a handful of others.

If all you do as a small brewery is concentrate on wild new experiments, then at what point do you flare out?

Asking someone to be the next Samuel Smith, by the way, is like asking someone to be the next Mouton Rothchild. In wine terms, Samuel Smith's is a First Grown brewery.

But where does the madness end? Or doesn't it?

I come to this question because I recently went somewhere, I tasted a lovely Scotch Ale. I love Scotch Ale. This was luscious and malty and just perfect. And I was relieved. Because the last two or three Scotch Ales I've tried were completely over hopped, and ruined in my humble opinion. There so many classic styles, is it not enough to make three or four or five well?

I am not trying to be a curmudgeon. I am a beer fan. And I love the experiments and trying new things. But the industry cannot sustain this level of experimentation forever. I saw the shakeout in the 1990s, and expect, in the craft business, that one will happen sooner than I like, and I will lament the loss of our fellow brethren. I might be a loser I am a business owner. I know these margins are thin. I am rooting for these guys. But when the shake out happens, who will be left standing?

There are smarter minds than mine on this question. As I said, I am a dilettante. But the landscape is rising up around me. In the Hudson Valley alone there are near 15-20 breweries. And around the state, there are multitudes more. I love it. I think the malling of North America has been a disgusting farce. And there is a certain glee I experience when I see the ghost malls springing up over the landscape (I admit a kind of self-righteous, sadistic Cormwellian sneer at these), and I love that the craft beverage business because it returns uniqueness to the individual regions. I love tasting new things and I love tasting things that are peculiar to a region. I like that local thing. I like that uniqueness. It is what makes traveling fun!

I know I am asking a big question. I know there is no answer. I know I am not equipped nor own the bonafides to give a proper answer. That's for the big guys to take on.

But from my lowly spot on the beer totem pole (actually I am not even on it), as a local purveyor, I wonder if it will affect the region and the other craft beverage producers? I am sure someone can even turn the question around on me, and ask them same of the wineries or the distilleries or the cideries.

But the question remains, at one point doesn't quality win out over pyrotechnics? Does making good beer beat experimentation at one point? Maybe I'm wrong and this was a waste of space, but I thought I'd at least ask the question. How does local beer sustain itself for the long haul?

To me, it all rests on a simple glass of Scotch Ale.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Black Is the New Orange

Have you guys ever had a chocolate orange? You know the ones in the foil wrapping that break into slices when you slam them on a table. 

I’m going to be honest, I’m not a big fan.

There’s something off-putting to me about the combination of chocolate and citric fruits. Chocolate covered bananas I’m all over, but the bittersweet, orange-iness of orange-flavored chocolate, just doesn’t float my boat. To be fair, I’ve never been a big chocolate lover—especially dark chocolate. I’d be quite content If I had some freak accident befall me where I could never taste chocolate again. I don’t dislike it. I just don’t care about it. Chocolate is the very definition—for me—of the beloved interwebs idiom—“Meh”. I’m also not a big fan of orange. Don’t get me wrong, I like fresh oranges and OJ (Ooh! and and orange push-ups) but that’s about as far as it goes. Duck a l’orange. Nah. Orange baby aspirin. Blech. Put orange flavoring into chocolate, and I’m out. 

Here’s my current paradox: Black IPAs remind me of chocolate oranges, but I like Black IPAs.

I didn’t want to at first, but I’ve come around—In fact now I really like Black IPAs. There’s something about the mild chocolate flavor with and a punch of bright orangey citrus hops that Black IPAs bring to the party. 

Granted the whole Black IPA is a bit "2012" as far as beer trends go, and I’ve got little time for the “black isn’t pale, so these can’t be called IPA” argument (so take it elsewhere buster). But I’ve been on a bit of a Black IPA kick of late—Back in Black, Mendocino, Raven’s Black, Wookey Jack, Otter Creek, and Shmaltz’s celebratory Death of a Contract Brewer have all been given the ol’ “over the teeth, and through the gums” of late. 

Why? Again I’m going to be honest. I have no idea.

Perhaps it’s the intensity of the chocolate and orange in a chocolate orange that I don’t like. Obviously, a Back IPA isn’t going to taste like a melted candy bar. Maybe it’s because there’s other things going on in the beer. It’s not just chocolate and orange. You get a bit of roasted coffee beans with Black IPAs, and a slight tobacco earthiness, balanced with some, not only citrus but piny bitterness.They are surprisingly complex.

Either way, I’m digging them, and I suppose that’s all that matters, anyway.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

I'm Not Going to Fuss Over Bud, and Neither Should You

I’ve been sitting back reading some of the responses and reactions to Budweiser’s “Brewed the Hard Way” Superbowl ad.

I’ve read articles noting Anheuser Busch’s hypocrisy, having just purchased Elysian. I’ve read pieces arguing that the ad was a clear, and definitive attack on craft-beer. Some are saying that Budweiser seems to be acknowledging the fact that it’s product is less than premium. I’ve even seen comments comparing the ad to the recent red sate/blue state political discourse in the U.S. of late. The bloggy, twitterverse has been gnashing its digital teeth and wringing its binary hands over the whole affair.

Who cares? Seriously. I sure-as-shit don’t.

I couldn’t care less what Budweiser or AB thinks about good beer. I haven’t drank Budweiser since I was in college. I haven’t given Bud much thought since then, either. I’m not sure what all the hubbub is about. AB is doing what AB has always done—and that is act like a big company by doing all the things big company’s do, and one of those things is turning the discussion towards them.

Ignoring the ad—and not buying their product(s)—sends a stronger message than tweeting pithy, craft-affirming responses to like-minded friends or customers. Which is what AB wanted you to do. They wanted a response. They goaded you. They wanted to rile you up. They wanted to disrupt your craft-drinking worlds, draw you into an argument, and get thousands of people talking about Budweiser. Guess what? It worked. 

But it didn't have to.

I had a coach in high-school who had a philosophy about competition. It was pretty simple. 

Do your job.

By that he meant don’t worry about the other guy. Do your job. Keep your eye on the prize, do what you need to do to be the best. Stay focused on you and your job. If everybody does their own job well, then things work out. The win will come. I think the same can be applied to the Budweiser situation.

Craft beer, and its "enthusiasts" have a tendency to be defensive. One might even say they have an ever-so-slight chip on their shoulder. They might be a bit thinned skinned, too, but they do love a pissing match. But Budweiser, AB and big beer aren't going anywhere. So why waste your breath? For the past 30 years craft beer has relentlessly waged war against big beer, and craft beer is everywhere now. But here's the thing. It’s not craft's manufactured mantra of "big is bad, good is great" that did that. It’s not the marketing and propaganda against big beer that has taken a good-sized bite out of big beer's market share. It was good beer that did it. 

So keep doing that—make good beer, buy good beer.

That’s all you have to do. Don’t worry about the other guy. 

Just do your job.